Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn, John Carter
Directed by Terrence Malick
Expectations: Low, but very curious.
Badlands may be the debut film of Terrence Malick, but it was much closer to a modern Malick film than I had expected. It’s not quite so experimental and detached as either The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line, but it is pretty damn experimental and detached. It defies genre classification because where you might expect a thrilling cross-country chase, Malick instead chooses to have his characters sit around a lot, enjoying nature and reading the paper. That’s OK, all films don’t have to be similar and derivative, but it does make Badlands a bit baffling from a traditional narrative standpoint. Finally seeing it sheds some light on why many are so obsessed with Malick, though; he’s one of the most singular and unique filmmakers ever to play the game. I give him credit for knowing exactly what he wants and being able to deliver it, but I can’t say that I enjoy the end results all that much.
This is easily the most narrative-driven Malick film I’ve seen, but it’s doesn’t exactly feel narrative driven. Things happen, leading to other things happening, but where that would traditionally constitute a plot, in Badlands it doesn’t really. It’s much more organic and free-flowing, like a dreamy slice of life, playing out almost like a tortured, realistic fantasy. The basics are that a 15-year-old girl named Holly (Sissy Spacek) lives with her distant father that never really loved her (or at least never showed it much). One day she meets a 25-year-old ruffian, Kit (Martin Sheen), who sweeps her off her feet with his bad-boy charm and his cool car. They manage to sneak around without her father knowing for a while, but when he does find out, he doesn’t take too kindly to it. One thing leads to another, and soon Kit and Holly are racing down the road in search of a place to hideout and get away from it all.
That description might make this film sound exciting, but remember that this isn’t specifically narrative driven and that this is Terrence Malick we’re talking about. Where do they go when first on the run? They go to the nearby river, build a tree house and live their version of an idyllic life for two kids in love. It’s never quite believable, but it actually plays better than it sounds. Of course, someone eventually finds them there, just outside of town, and they have to leave. Where do they go? To Kit’s buddy’s house… just outside of town. At this point, I wondered if Malick was just a misunderstood master of dry comedy.
But I digress, because like I said, Badlands isn’t about the specific plot points. So what is it about? The characters would be the next obvious choice, but I can’t rightly say that’s the focus either because there isn’t much depth in either of our leads. Holly is a girl looking for a father figure, so she sticks with her man Kit even though he’s crazy. She pretty much says so herself in one of her many narrations. And Kit is the kind of guy who’s always had a hard life, and living in a small, quiet town has gotten to him over the years. When he finally found someone he loved, he was willing to fight for it with all his might, no matter what it took. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for either character. For all the praise this one has received over the years, I found it to be a pretty disappointing film.
Except for one key area: the cinematography. It’s the one constant in Malick’s films that anyone, even his detractors, must give him credit for. And even though this is his debut film, Badlands is amazingly well-shot. Like candidate for “Best Filmed Debut Ever” quality. It’s consistently stunning, gorgeous and beautiful throughout and it makes watching Badlands a pretty enjoyable experience, no matter how slow the plot is at times. Even on his first film, Malick had an intense ability to capture perfectly composed images of glorious vistas, wildlife and suburban landscapes alike. I also had the opportunity to watch the film on the newly released (as of last week) Criterion Blu-ray, and it’s a stunner. The film looks so crisp you’ll think it was shot in 2013, not 1973. I can’t say enough about the cinematography, it’s just absolutely superb.
As for the Malick-isms that dominate his later films (and have been the brunt of many jokes), pretty much everything from whispered voice-over to the sound of a finger on the rim of a glass is all here to signal the director Malick would eventually grow into. He’s definitely concerned more with internal struggle and the natural world than with people, but here the focus is still largely on the people, making Badlands a much more accessible film than his later work. There’s probably as much dialogue in the first 5-10 minutes of Badlands as there is in the entire 139 minutes of The Tree of Life, for example.
I can respect Badlands for what it is, and what it does right, but I can’t say that I liked it. It is easily my “favorite” of the three Malick films I’ve seen, though, and I am definitely intrigued enough to seek out Malick’s second film, Days of Heaven. I don’t know that I will ever come around to liking Malick, but that’s OK… it takes all kinds of people in this world, and I’m glad Malick is still out there doin’ his thing all these years later.
Badlands was a part of the 2013 Blind Spot Series where I see one movie a month that I feel I should’ve seen a long time ago. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. Head over there tomorrow where he’ll have a post of his own for the series, as well as links to all the other people taking part in the series.